If you miss being close to your teenager; if you miss the way her face lit up when you came home from work; the way that he’d hug you at bedtime like he’d never let go, you are not alone: your child misses you too. Adolescence marks a time of loss for both parents and kids. As teens establish their own sense of identity and move through the natural process of separation from their parents, their interests shift from home to the outside world of school and friends.
Your teen may become more critical of you. You may be surprised by your teen’s emotional outbursts. It is normal for parents to feel hurt and confused amidst of these changes and to react with anger. Unfortunately reacting with anger will only succeed in pushing your teen further away. On the other hand, if you stop to appreciate all your teen is going through, the new behaviors might even begin to make sense to you.
Recent research reveals that teens experience major reorganization within the frontal regions of the brain, affecting how they manage their behavior and emotions. Charles Nelson, director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota, says, “[Teens] themselves are sometimes surprised at what flies out of their mouth. The reason for these things is that they're feeling things before they can regulate and even articulate what it is they're feeling.” Changes underlying the control of emotions and behavior are particularly strong in early adolescence and tend to become less pronounced as teens reach adulthood.
What does this mean for you as the parent of a teen? Although your child may seem annoyed by your mere presence, he needs your guidance. The brain is receptive to experience throughout the teen years. There's enormous capacity for change – and tremendous opportunity. How can you stay connected and be your child’s friendly guide during the teen years?
(1) Have fun together. Let your teen know that you want to spend time together. Schedule time s/he can count on, doing activities you both enjoy together.
(2) Express faith in your child’s abilities. Ask yourself: What’s an area in my teen’s life where I need to give up some control and give over some responsibility? Consider how you will approach your teen about this change. Often it’s helpful to begin by describing how you have contributed to the problem: “I’ve noticed that every time you get behind in school, I tend to take over. Do you have some ideas about how you’d like to organize things differently?
(3) Be accessible. Your teen does care about what you think, even if it’s not apparent. Show your child that you care. Set firm limits on negative emotions and behavior, but be careful to manage your own negative emotions in the process. This is easier to do when you realize that such negative behavior reflects vulnerability. If you take a deep dive, you will find the feeling behind the presenting misbehavior is just the opposite of what it appears. Just as the Halloween cat seems so fierce and strong with its fur standing on end, your teen’s show of power and defiance reflects someone who feels scared, criticized, unsure, hurt, or discouraged. When you respond with calm understanding rather than anger, your child will feel safer about opening up to you, and more receptive to considering your point of view.
Laura Backen Jones, Ph.D.
Laura Backen Jones